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Nation's School Chiefs Complete Plans To Gauge States, Students

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Lake Buena Vista, Fla--The nation's chief state school officers last week completed a break with tradition, voting overwhelmingly here to conduct rigorous cross-state assessments of their policies and their students' educational progress.

The chiefs agreed to report their findings annually, beginning in 1987.

The Council of Chief State School Officers also unanimously approved a resolution opposing a proposal by U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett to establish a voucher system for Chapter 1 funds, and they adopted a sweeping set of recommendations to upgrade the international dimensions of school curricula. They also agreed to focus their attention next year on how to implement reforms and the relationship between education and the economy.

Following Through

In accepting a plan for making cross-state assessments--including an initial set of indicators on which to base comparisons--the council followed through on a commitment it made last November to take the lead in documenting the health of the nation's public schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1984.) The council represents education chiefs in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the six extra-territorial districts.

Although many of the chiefs who voted for the assessment plan said it was sufficiently flexible to permit changes, their6vote all but commits them to develop common definitions of such widely varying state indices as dropout rates and attendance rates, and to administer common test items that would enable cross-state comparisons of student achievement, which some chiefs fear could lead to a national curriculum.

In some cases, the chiefs may hold states to minimum standards on various indices. The ccsso will also develop a classification system to enable comparisons of districts in one state with similar districts in other states, but decisions to do this would be voluntary on the part of individual states.

Traditionally, the chiefs have opposed cross-state comparisons, claiming that they mix "apples and oranges" and serve no instructional purpose. They have been particularly critical of the U.S. Education Department's "wall chart," which ranks the states from top to bottom based on two outcome indicators--college-entrance examination scores and dropout rates.

Unlike the approach used in developing the wall chart, the chiefs' proposal will group states, based on "contextual indicators" such as demographic variables, and will rank states only against others in the same group. Also, the chiefs plan to base states' rankings on composite scores of a complete set of indicators, rather than on individual items.

Gordon M. Ambach, the New York State chief and immediate past president of the council, said the chiefs' ranking system represents "the state of the art." It will also make it difficult for observers to draw conclusions that many chiefs consider inappropriate--such as how the states rank from top to bottom on a particular outcome measure.

Achievement testing is not scheduled to begin until 1988, and the results will not be reported until the following year. In the meantime, the chiefs' new assessment center, which they established earlier this year, will try to develop common definitions for the indicators and will report on data that are relatively simple for states to collect.

In the first years of testing, the plan calls for the chiefs to use test items developed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally funded program now administered by the Educational Testing Service. The chiefs will also seek to redesign naep to suit their long-term assessment needs, according to Stephen S. Kaagan, the Vermont chief who chaired the committee that recommended the plan. (See Education Week, Oct. 9, 1985.)

The naep tests are expensive to administer, and originally were designed so that cross-state comparisons would not be possible. As a result, the use of naep was one of the most hotly debated aspects of the assessment plan.

Policy Reversal

Although international education was the theme of this year's conference, much of the interest and de-bate focused on the plan for cross-state assessments.

At their 1984 annual meeting in Wilmington, Del., the chiefs, in a stunning policy reversal, had approved by 27 votes to 12 a report that called on them to take the lead in assessing state education systems. Of the papers' 23 recommendations, five dealt specifically with the development of cross-state indicators.

A vote to amend the report and table those five items failed by a single vote, 20 to 19, and the chiefs subsequently voted to proceed with cross-state comparisons, subject to their approval of a detailed implementation plan.

It was that plan--researched by a steering committee of state testing experts and recommended to the council by its committee on coordinating educational information and research--that the chiefs approved at last week's meeting. (See related story on page 15.)

Supporters of the plan said the use of the indicators, including achievement tests, would help states set goals, evaluate their progress, and document the effects of the reform movement.

"Part of the purpose is not just the ranking of states. ... We've got to agree here where we're going toel13lmove to improve things in this country," said Bill Honig, the state chief in California.

"You don't collect data just to rank states. You collect data because you want to have nationwide information about the states, so that any one state will know where it's going in relation to that," Mr. Ambach added.

Robert D. Benton, the chief in Iowa, who proposed the motion to table a year ago, this time spoke in favor of proceeding with cross-state comparisons.

"I think the committee has done what I and others wanted it to do," he said. "It's ironed out a number of the wrinkles," although, he added, "there's still a mountain of work to be done."

"Even if the scoreboard is imperfect, it's better than not keeping score at all," added Ralph Turlington, Florida's chief.

Three Dissenting Votes

In a voice vote called by Mr. Ambach, only three chiefs voted against approval of the committee's report: Wayne Teague of Alabama, Harold Raynolds Jr. of Alaska, and Lynn O. Simons of Wyoming.

But in a lengthy discussion preceding the vote, more than 20 of the chiefs raised a host of concerns about the proposal. Some objected to the added testing burden and the use of the naep, while others questioned the value of making the comparisons.

"What does this do to improve the quality of instruction in the classroom?" Mr. Raynolds asked.

"While we're all saying what we're talking about is not a ranking of the states, we all know that, as a practical matter, it is," Ms. Simons added.

She called the testing proposal an "empty exercise" that would needlessly duplicate existing state testing programs.

John Lawson, the Massachusetts chief, who abstained from the voting, cautioned that the comparisons might not present an accurate picture, noting that "it's extremely difficult to gather data on the qualitative aspects of education."

"How can we be sure that results of a national ranking system will lead to an improvement of student performance?" he asked. "What if Massachusetts should rank last? Would that automatically mean we should change the system of education in the state. ... I don't know."

Charlie G. Williams, the chief in South Carolina, objected to the committee's plan to administer naep test items and compare them with naep's national norms, saying such a comparison "really has no validity.'' The naep, he added, was "never designed to do what we want it to do and never funded to do what it does now."

But Mr. Kaagan said in an interview that a statistical model could be developed to make the comparisons valid. Ramsey Seldon, the head of the chiefs' assessment center, added that the chiefs will need to start by using test items for which national norms have been established, because they cannot be sure how many states will participate in the testing program.

Mr. Kaagan also assured the chiefs that the committee's plan did not necessarily wed them to the naep. "It's one particular vessel that may be able to help us, but we're not sure. If we can't work it out in negotiations, we'll go other ways," he said.

Mr. Ambach also pointed out that although the administration of naep tests is costly, "it's going to cost a considerable amount of money regardless of who's going to be doing it."

He said the committee's recommendation to work with the naep was "based in large part on the cost issue," because the chiefs do not have to pay for already-normed naep items that are in the public domain, and because the naep is federally funded.

Fears Overcome

In voting for the plan, many chiefs, especially those from Southern and Midwestern states, said they had to overcome their fears of state-by-state comparisons. "I want to see that Arkansas maintains its positive image," said Tommy Venters, that state's chief. "That won't happen if we're ranked 50th again."

But many of the chiefs said that as a result of the reform movement, they felt substantial pressure to make themselves accountable to the public. And although participation in the assessment program is voluntary, Mr. Kaagan noted that these same pressures will make it "difficult not to participate."

"We are going to have cross-state comparisons," said Jerry L. Evans, the chief in Idaho. "So we might as well see that it's done fairly."

"The need for assessments to show the public where we stand is more important than the other considerations," added James O. Hansen, the chief in South Dakota.

"It's not what we think individually about the impact it will have on children that counts, but the perception that people have, at least in wanting to know where we stand in comparison to other states," said W. Thomas McNeel, the chief in West Virginia. "Our legislators want to know that. How are we going to do that? When are we going to do that?"

Vouchers Opposed

In voting to urge the Congress to oppose the Education Department's Chapter 1 voucher proposal, the chiefs said the plan would reduce the amount of funds available for educating disadvantaged children.

"The Administration has advanced no sound reason for gutting one of the most effective federal education programs," said Mr. Ambach. "Indeed, the Administration has often touted the effects of Chapter 1 in improving basic skills for poor children."

Mr. Ambach cited the recent gains by poor children on naep tests as an indicator of the program's effectiveness.

However, a number of chiefs here were heard grumbling that the potential value of some of the Chapter 1 vouchers has been underestimated.

Although Education Department officials and press accounts have widely reported that the average value of the proposed Chapter 1 voucher would be about $600, the amount could range from below $300 to more than $1,000.

The bill, which was introduced in the Congress last week, says the amount of the voucher would generally equal a district's current per-pupil Chapter 1 expenditure. In the 1983-84 school year, the average allocation was $656, according to the Education Department, but expenditures ranged from an average of $280 per pupil in California to an average of $1,133 in Alaska.

International Education

The chiefs' initiative on international education offered more than 40 recommendations addressed to federal agencies, the council, and the individual chiefs.

The statement calls on the council to develop comparisons of national education systems through its assessment center, to work with the states to improve the quality of foreign language teaching, and to work with textbook publishers to "assure international concerns are included in textbooks and other instructional materials."

Also included is a recommendation that state education agencies require all schools to provide foreign-language classes. But several of the chiefs said they did not expect that to occur any time soon because of cost considerations.

"The bottom line is that this council is trying to reaffirm the commitment it's had for a long time to international education," said A. Craig Phillips, the North Carolina chief, who headed the committee that drafted the report. "It's not new, but it's significant that the Council of Chief State School Officers is saying we should do these things."

Mr. Ambach added: "The significance is that this says international education is integral to the American educational experience, not peripheral."

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